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From Austen to Atmosphere: An Interview with James Wollak, author of Distress and Determination


A lifelong devotee of Jane Austen and all her works, James Wollak has worked as a financial data analyst and lives in San Francisco, California, a third generation San Franciscan. He is an avid reader, numismatist, and music lover, enjoying all kinds of music such as classical and opera, Motown and soul, ABBA, Celtic, blues, bluegrass, and zydeco. He also loves silent and classic Hollywood films, and the Poldark, Downton Abbey, and Sanditon series. He is a confirmed Anglophile, and Pride and Prejudice is his favorite novel of all time.

You can buy Distress and Determination here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I’m good at coming up with names of characters and locations, but titles of stories are a lot more challenging, so I struggled to come up with Distress and Determination. I wanted something alliterative and, being a Libra—balanced, that is—I wanted one part to cover the challenges or struggles Frederick Darcy experiences, and the other to balance or counter that, lifting him up so that he’d become more confident and accomplished. Then, in the spirit of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the first word had to have fewer syllables than the later word. Should be easy, right? How I struggled to come up with that title! Insight and Suitability wasn’t any easier. The editor liked Distress and Determination as the title, but I would have tried to come up with something else if he didn’t!

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I was speechless when I saw the cover of Distress and Determination. It was perfect—exactly what Frederick should look like! I had picked out several covers of existing novels for examples of color and style I liked, including some classical portraits, but I couldn’t have found a better cover image myself. It is Frederick to the life!

I really like the cover art of Insight and Suitability too. It perfectly evokes and reflects its historical period, and appropriately fits the main storyline of the novel, including the young woman’s speculative expression as she reaches for a blossom.

It’s always wonderful to hold a copy of your book in your hands, especially when it first arrives! I remembered just sitting and contemplating the proof copy of Insight and Suitability as the realization sunk in—that I had written this, and here was the tangible result! I felt the same way with the second novel.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I began writing because I was exposed to many great stories and books in school, starting with grammar school English and composition classes (but not grammar itself), including the Junior Great Books program and books lent to me by others. I ended up imitating the stories I enjoyed reading, first The Little House books (though I didn’t have any pioneers in my family history), then Sherlock Holmes and other mystery novels.

About the same time, one year my grandmother’s basement flooded, and cleaning up the mess uncovered mystery magazines my dad read from the early 1940s through the late 1950s (what a treasure—I still have them)! Then, starting with Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, I eventually read almost nothing but mystery novels for many years until I began reading classic literature as a young adult—all this helped me become an Anglophile! I think I’ve read 1,000 mystery novels by now, and even completed two written manuscripts in that genre half a lifetime ago.

I didn’t even consider myself a writer, though, until I completed the first draft of Insight and Suitability in 2010 and got some feedback from friends. Before that, I thought I just dabbled in writing because I did it occasionally and studied Econ, not English, as my major.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I recently retired from my career as a financial data analyst with a national regulator after almost twenty-six years. I loved working with numbers, but my work also included lots of writing—answering questions on forms and instructions for reporting financial institutions, creating user guides for applications, and documenting issues uncovered during audits and reviews.

At work, I also reviewed writing samples submitted by job applicants and was considered a general grammar expert and reviewer of documents and emails so that some coworkers and managers nicknamed me “The Professor.”

I even write inspirational articles for my church bulletin. I began writing them nearly five years ago; in the beginning and for a while, the articles appeared weekly—now I write them occasionally, so I’ve completed about sixty by now. The most recent one appeared on Easter Sunday, April 9th.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

The most meaningful parts of publishing my books have been (1) realizing I did it—completed it—with the help of others, and (2) holding the proof, the actual copies, in my hands. It is such an amazing feeling, a combination of accomplishment and awe!

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

This is such a great, fun question! It would be easy to suggest plenty of classical pieces that would be suitable for both novels, but I decided to answer this question relying on contemporary popular music I’ve enjoyed over the years. Here’s a list for each novel. (FYI, it can be lots of fun to cast the characters in your novel as if it’s being made into a movie or TV series!)

Distress & Determination:

True Colors – Cyndi Lauper

Never Going Back Again – Fleetwood Mac

Daniel – Elton John

Vincent – Don McLean

Have You Never Been Mellow? – Olivia Newton-John

Crumblin’ Down – John Cougar Mellencamp

It’s My Life – Talk Talk

I Wonder/Departure – ABBA

I’m Still Standing – Elton John

Ain’t Even Done with the Night – John Cougar Mellencamp

What is My Life? – George Harrison

Higher Love – Steve Winwood

Don’t Look Back – Temptations

Uptight, Everything’s All Right – Stevie Wonder

Chanson pour Ezra – Beausoleil

Insight & Suitability:

Chances Are – Johnny Mathis

If – Bread

I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do – ABBA

Two Lovers – Mary Wells

More Love – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Lady Jane – Rolling Stones

You Can’t Hurry Love – Supremes

Waiting for a Girl Like You – Foreigner

Magic – Olivia Newton-John

Say You Will – Fleetwood Mac

For Your Eyes Only – Sheena Easton

The Finer Things – Steve Winwood

A Groovy Kind of Love – Phil Collins

Desperado – Eagles

Air in B Minor – Tom Rigney instrumental

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope both novels help readers discover significance in the interactions of people from earlier historical periods, men and women who were able to accept the class, culture, and mores they inherited, and try to strive for better. In addition, I hope readers can accept and appreciate that men in the early 19th century were also bound by social restraints, though not as tightly as the women, and expected to have fine characters as opposed to mere reputations.

My perfect reader would be anyone who likes historical and classical fiction—and anything by Jane Austen, of course. Though I didn’t consider that Distress and Determination might appeal to young adult readers in the beginning, now I think that Frederick’s struggles and challenges will resonate with them as well.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

Lately I’ve been focused on revising and rewriting my remaining manuscripts relating to Frederick Darcy and his extended family, so I haven’t written much that is new. I think I am ready to do so now, which I’m looking forward to. First up would be writing a short story about the emergence of an unknown, illegal-to-own 1933 double eagle (a $20 gold piece). I also write short stories in two genres, Jane Austen and ghost/horror/paranormal stories set mostly in San Francisco where I live, so I might want to write another one of these stories. A few existing ones will be posted on my author website.

Since I recently retired, I have a long list of home projects I want to work on, and they mostly involve removing lots of clutter! My house has plenty of closets, but they’re all filled with stuff. I’m hoping to embrace the idea that having less is more, and way less complicated!

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Working with Atmosphere Press has been great! You can submit a manuscript in any genre at any time to them for review, instead of specified kinds and times in writing contests, for example. Atmosphere offers services to help build and maintain author websites, as well as marketing plans to help get your book out there (once accepted for publication), with plenty of great resources to use going forward. I can’t say enough about the wonderful staff, from the editors to the artists to the marketing folks—it has been fantastic working with all of them. Even as an author retaining final control, it really has been a collaborative, positive experience for me for each novel! I highly recommend Atmosphere Press and encourage writers to consider giving them a try by submitting their manuscripts! It has done wonders for me.

I would tell other writers to write and keep writing, find a mentor or someone whose feedback you trust, and write what is meaningful for you, or whatever feels right in your heart. This comes from three of us Atmosphere authors who participated together in a great Zoom reading in early March of this year. I really appreciated the advice the other two authors gave, and I include theirs here along with my own (i.e., finding a mentor or someone to give feedback). To other writers out there, all the best.

You can buy Distress and Determination here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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